It started 4,000 years ago, and only advanced religious scholars of a certain age, marital status and gender were privy to its mysteries.
Then a former insurance agent from Brooklyn named Feivel Gruberger saw the light (and the opportunities) and turned the kabbala, an archaic, mystical branch of Judaism, into a global movement with 25 study centers and countless famous disciples who chug expensive water in the name of enlightenment.
Gruberger, who renamed himself Philip Berg and is known as Rav Berg, founded the Kabbalah Centre in the U.S. more than 30 years ago. Converts emerge almost daily. From Mick Jagger to Elizabeth Taylor, Perry Farrell to Thalia, celebs of all stripes have been caught up in the mystique of the center. And then there's Madonna, the most fervent follower of all. But is the kabbala really a legitimate religious path? Or is it just another trendy kind of "spirituality" for the Hollywood elite and hangers-on?
For Madonna, discovering the kabbala seven years ago was a life-altering experience. "I found answers when I began to study kabbala," wrote the singer in a release about her new children's book, "The English Roses" (Callaway), which was inspired by her new philosophy. "I realized that there was, and continues to be, a reaction in the world to all of my words and my actions, good and bad. I felt the implication of personal and global karma."
Lofty words for mundane sentiments, some might say. But Madonna is so enamored of what she describes as a "manual for living," that she converted her husband, director Guy Ritchie, and enrolled her daughter, Lourdes, in kabbala classes.
She and her hubby reportedly hold "kabbala parties" to turn friends into devotees. In May, Madonna spent more than $6 million to build a 10,000-square-foot home for the Kabbalah Centre's London branch, three blocks from her home, according to a British newspaper.
And she has made the kabbala the focus of "The English Roses," which is available for sale on the center's Web site. Proceeds from the book's sales go to Spirituality for Kids, an organization that oversees programs for adults and children, including the Kabbalah Children's Academy.
Though Madonna is undoubtedly the kabbala's most vocal disciple, there are many others. Winona Ryder wore a kabbala bracelet - red string - during her trial for shoplifting. Demi Moore recently told Vogue the kabbala helps her learn "the value of her worth." And when there was tension on the set of their recent Gap ad shoot, Madonna "called her spiritual adviser" to help Missy Elliott, said the rapper. "He gave me, like, the red string, and he prayed for me. The rest of the shoot was fine."
In the process of morphing from obtuse mysticism to a celebrity-friendly philosophy, the kabbala may have lost some authenticity, complexity and profundity. Indeed, it was originally intended for Jewish, pious, learned, married males over the age of 40 - not female pop stars with no formal education in Judaism.
Rabbi Alan Brill, a kabbalist and professor of Jewish mysticism at Yeshiva University, who isn't a stringent critic of the center like some of his colleagues, admits that "it's not the same as the traditional study of the classic texts.
"They're picking out certain formulas and popularizing them," he explains. "They're doing great marketing." Much of what the Kabbalah Centre teaches seems drawn from a New Age/self-help handbook. This is why critics accuse it of providing a quick fix instead of a thoughtful solution. Asked about specific lessons the center offers, Berg talks about a series of morning meditations, like asking, "How am I going to make my today different than yesterday?" He also says that the center teaches people to look at obstacles "as opportunities instead of problems."
One potential obstacle the center's students face is a skeptical spouse. When one partner becomes deeply involved while the other remains disbelieving, "it's not uncommon for someone at the Kabbalah Centre to say, perhaps that person isn't spiritually right for you," says Rick Ross, executive director of the Ross Institute, a nonprofit cult-watching organization based in Jersey City. "They may exert their influence to terminate the relationship." Critics say the center is responsible for breaking up marriages, but Berg dismisses this charge.
"The bottom line is that people who study spirituality tend to be people with trouble in their marriage," he argues.
Still, Ross says he has received "scores" of complaints about the center, and that it has been investigated by several Jewish cult-watching associations.
Despite these warnings, the center claims hundreds of thousands of members, celebrity and otherwise. At a free introductory class in the center's multistory building on E. 48th St., the mood is anticipatory and excited, like a college reunion. The students range in age from 20 to 50.
"What do you associate with kabbala?" asks the instructor, a thirtysomething man in a yarmulke. "Mysticism," says one woman. "Judaism," says another. "Can I be honest?" asks a woman whose nametag says Donna. "We never heard about it until Madonna."
Donna says she was interested in the kabbala because of the "stillness" that she saw in Madonna when she appeared on "Oprah."
"She has transformed her life," agrees the teacher. "She's a student here."
Madonna has the power to influence scores of people, even on the tube. And luckily for the Material Girl, the Kabbalah Centre "does not reject materialism," according to the teacher at the introductory class - another reason that celebs and other prominent people, like David Shamouelian, CEO of fashion label Sharagano, and music executive Tommy Mottola, may be drawn to the center.
Berg says some of his acolytes have used kabbalist principles even in their businesses, to great success, though he's short on concrete examples. "Do you believe that learning spirituality can help you make more money?" asks the hold message at the Kabbalah Centre. "Then you're on the right track!"
Money can be a sensitive subject for Berg and his ilk. Though the center classifies itself as a religious charity, meaning it does not have to disclose much in the way of its financial dealings, the Kabbalah Centre is not dealing in small change. Records from 2000 show that the organization had over $14.5 million in assets and $5.5 million in revenue.
Those profits come from donations and from sales of the red bracelets (they ward off "the evil eye," says Berg), books and audiotapes, and the Kabbalah Centre's own brand of bottled water, which Madonna reportedly demands exclusively.
The water, bottled in Canada, is "injected with positive energy," says Berg, in a technological process that he can't really explain. It's said to cure health problems, although Berg is quick to note that the center doesn't endorse it for such uses, but "people have said it's helped them in their healing process."
"I've emptied the bottle in my dog's dish," snipes Ross. "And I haven't noticed anything."
Is the Kabbalah Centre dangerous? Probably not. Does it teach real religious principles? Probably not.
The kabbala most often referred to today is based on the Zohar, a 13th-century text that's a commentary on the Torah (some kabbalists believe the Torah is written in a code only they can decipher).
Although the kabbala was considered too complex for all but the most rarefied of scholars to understand, today Berg and his family have opened it to the general population. Even non-Jewish people (like Madonna, who was raised a Catholic) are welcome. In fact, Yehuda Berg, Rav Berg's son and co-director of the New York center, estimates that up to 40% of their students are not Jewish, a fact that rankles many conservative Jewish leaders.
Traditional kabbala study involves hundreds of texts and more esoteric pursuits like numerology. In contrast, students at the Kabbalah Centre are taught that keeping a copy of the Zohar - which the center conveniently sells on its Web site for $415, down from $494 - under their pillows will provide them with basic spiritual enlightenment. "The more you connect to it, the more beneficial it is," says Berg. "You could start with the energy just being absorbed [by] having the text, then the next step would be to read and understand it."
This easily digestible approach to spirituality may help fuel the center's growth, especially among fad-obsessed celebrities.
After their well-publicized kiss at the MTV Video Music Awards, Madonna and Britney Spears worked together on a song for the latter's upcoming album - and Spears emerged from the studio wearing the red string bracelet.
"Sometimes when a person has everything and they still don't feel fulfilled, they think, 'Okay, there must be something more to this,'" says Berg. Kabbala offers answers and you don't even have to go to a class at the center to gain spiritual knowledge, he adds. "You can just read a book. It's not an all-or-nothing proposition."
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